Dave Zirin: How Hurricane Katrina provoked new rise of the political athlete

September 4, 2015

LeBron James.

If there was ever a moment that signalled how little Black lives mattered to people in power in the US, it was in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which hit the Gulf of Mexico — especially devastating the city of New Orleans — 10 years ago.

This fact was called out in real time by New Orleans residents, racial-justice activists around the country, and Kanye West's off-script and utterly true comments that “George Bush doesn't care about Black people”.

My colleague at The Nation, Mychal Denzel Smith, has written a searing piece — “The Rebirth of Black Rage” — about how Katrina signalled a new era of urgent Black protest, how this upsurge was blunted by Barack Obama's 2008 run for president, and how the promise of the impatient, righteous rage is being realised in today's movements against police violence.

In 2005, there was reflection of these dynamics in the world of sports, albeit with some striking differences. At times, Black athletes in the US have provided a vital megaphone for Black rage: a platform where a select group of “jocks for justice” amplified the call from the streets and risked their own — often illusory — privilege as well-paid professional entertainers.

There is a reason you cannot tell the history of the early 1950s civil rights movement without Jackie Robinson, or the Black freedom struggle of the 1960s without Muhammad Ali, Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Similarly, one would have difficulty telling the history of #BlackLivesMatter without mentioning Serena Williams, the St Louis Rams, college basketball player Ariyana Smith — who lay on the ground before a game last year in recognition of slain Black youth Michael Brown — and the NBA players who told the world they could not breathe.

Yet the gap in athletic activism between the 1960s and the 21st century was chasmic. Finding an athletic response to the devastation of the Reagan years, the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion or Bill Clinton's mass-jailing campaign that we now know as the New Jim Crow was like searching for a New Orleans Saints Super Bowl run.

The little athletic response that did emerge — from people like NBA players Craig Hodges and Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf — was drowned by dismissive, almost entirely white sports media, vindictive league executives, and a Nike culture that told athletes that there was no higher calling than becoming a brand.

Then the levees broke, and with them, cracked the crushing conformity around the political lives of athletes.

I remember speaking with young NBA centre Etan Thomas in 2005 when he said to me: “I definitely agree with Kanye West. Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water?”

Thomas was hardly alone. Saints receiver Joe Horn said: “It's devastating to us. I've cried three or four times. Seeing kids without any food, elderly people dying and the government saying that help is on the way — that's the most shocking part.”

Retired basketballer and TV commentator Charles Barkley, so awful last year on police brutality, may not want us to remember that 10 years ago, he said: “America is divided by economics, and especially poor kids have to get their education. If you are poor and Black or poor and white or Hispanic, you are going to be at a disadvantage … if you don't get education and you are poor then you are at the mercy of this government.”

Even controversial baseballer Barry Bonds asked why Congress had time to investigate steroids while people were dying in New Orleans.

The outpouring was significant, not least of all because in those pre-social media times, words had an impact of amplification; they were less hurried, less-impulse driven, less disposable.

It should not have been surprising that it took Hurricane Katrina and the obscene political response that ensued to break athletes out of their swoosh-adorned shells.

It was not only the horrors of the floating bodies, the people calling for help on their roofs, or the horror of seeing the New Orleans Superdome quickly morph into the homeless shelter from hell. It was the fact that more than 100 pro athletes from the three major sports leagues — NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball — had been raised on that little scrap of land known as the Gulf Coast.

I remember asking a friend who is still a coach down there how that small land mass had produced so many professional jocks.

He said: “Well, Dave, you've got poverty, you've got institutional racism, you've got horrible schools, and you've got full-time sunshine all year round. That is the perfect soil to produce professional athletes in this country.”

William Rhoden, the New York Times sports columnist and author of $40 Million Slaves, returned to that soil soon after the levees broke. He arrived with a group of NBA and WNBA athletes bringing supplies.

At the time, he wrote: “Horrifying images underscored the reality that there are multiple tiers of life in America.

“The images of death, desperation, hopelessness, and poverty, flushed into full view, made many of us wonder where this America had been hiding.

“We did not recognize it. Some of us did not even realize this America existed. The hurricane was also a wake-up call for this group of NBA athletes, because the hardest hit were Black and poor …

“Justin Reed, a forward for the Boston Celtics said he saw himself in the faces of young storm victims. 'I come from a single-parent home, and once upon a time we were homeless,' he said …

“Dallas Maverick center Erick Dampier also spoke about the need to 'pull together as a group.' The instinctive desire to come together was real, but we — and the people of the Gulf — are still waiting for it to ripen and cohere into the new kind of civil rights movement so needed.”

Yet as Denzel Smith put it, that “new kind of civil rights movement” ran straight into the “Obama for President” campaign and was “redirected to electoral politics and the messaging of Obama's candidacy. Black rage was being channelled into Black hope. On its face, that isn't entirely bad, but the particular brand of Black hope that Obama represented was one that muted Black rage, and its possibilities, altogether.”

For Black athletes, however, the Obama candidacy had another indirectly positive dimension. It opened up an exceedingly safe space to do what few had done in the previous decades: speak about politics.

Athletes we have heard from a great deal amid the #BlackLivesMatter era first braved the political waters in supporting Obama's candidacy.

This, along with advances in social media, has dramatically opened up the opportunity for athletes to finally put the Age of the Apolitical Athlete to bed. They can reframe their platform as one that could be used for something other than selling us more crap.

[Abridged from The Nation.]

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